Last Tuesday I had to go down to London on business, so I took the opportunity to go down a little early and spend a cultural afternoon in London. I was particularly keen to see the exhibition of paintings by Picasso showing at the Courtauld Gallery. It was coming to the end of it’s run and so this was my last chance to see the paintings, all from a single year, 1901:
the year that the ambitious nineteen-year-old launched his career in Paris with an exhibition that would set him on course to become one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
It was a relatively small exhibition – it was certainly not a blockbuster. Just two rooms but a decent number of pictures. And what pictures!
I arrived at the Courtauld at about half past one. There wasn’t really a queue – only 2 couples in front of me and the exhibition wasn’t too busy. Not quiet, but no need for a timed ticket and I could see all the paintings without having to stand on tip toes and peek over peoples’ shoulders. I was able to view them leisurely and go back and look again without any problems, so I probably went round twice and back a few more times to the pictures I particularly liked.
The paintings on display were all from his debut exhibition in 1901 with the influential dealer Ambroise Vollard and show how his work changed over that short timescale, leading to his “Blue” period.
The earlier paintings, from the first half of 1901, were displayed in the first room. They showed strong influences by the Impressionists and Post Impressionists such as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. Lots of bright colours roughly dabbed on, particularly noticeable on his painting of “Nana, the dwarf dancer”
(source: Courtauld website)
The subject matter of these paintings, circus performers, the Moulin Rouge and the Can Can also seemed to show the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas.
In the second room the style of many of the paintings, produced after his Vollard exhibition, changed quite dramatically. The brushwork in most of them was quite different from those from the earlier part of the year. And the colour in many of them were more sombre and dominated by blue tones – we can see the beginning of his “Blue period”.
Some still showed influences, like this painting of an absinthe drinker, a subject previously painted by Degas
Absinthe drinker (source: Wikipaintings)
But Picasso’s painting was different - less lifelike. There are some similarities with Lautrec’s style but it is less realisitic. The outsize hands and unrealistic right arm being particularly noticeable. She has a grim expression on her prematurely aged face, and is making a curious gesture.
There were some well known paintings including Child with Dove and two paintings featuring Harlequin – Seated Harlequin and Harlequin and Companion, and two self portraits – Self Portrait (Yo – Picasso) and Self Portrait (Yo).
Two lesser known paintings I liked featured a mother and child. The first show a contented pair, the baby looking chubby and well fed
Mother and Child (source: Wikipaintings)
but the second, featuring the same models, shows a different, more desperate situation. The child is a little older and another baby being carried by the mother.
The Mother (source: Wikipaintings)
The differences in style of the two paintings reflect the different situations. The first being neater and more brightly coloured and the second more crudely painted with larger brushstrokes and a rougher finish.
So, not a blockbuster, but a manageable exhibition without a duff painting in sight. I came away feeling stimulated and having learned something about Picasso’s work, rather than exhausted.